Budget Watch

In 2021 budget, PAO’s forensic lab stands to lose doctors

Lian Buan

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In 2021 budget, PAO’s forensic lab stands to lose doctors

DENGVAXIA. Public Attorneys Office (PAO) chief Persida Acosta lugs 2 truckloads of documents and evidence to the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday, November 25, to file the 6th batch of Dengvaxia complaints.

Photo by Inoue Jaena

(UPDATED) Senator Sonny Angara, whom PAO pins the blame on, says 'many senators' believe that forensic work duplicates the NBI's mandate

As questions mounted on the scientific credibility of its homicide cases related to the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) forensic laboratory would be completely defunded in the 2021 proposed budget, with at least 4 doctors standing to lose their jobs.

PAO chief Persida Acosta said in a press conference on Tuesday, December 1, that 4 lab doctors and 3 staff members, would become jobless if the budget cut pushes through. Acosta said their posts were plantilla positions signed by former budget secretary Benjamin Diokno, meaning only within President Rodrigo Duterte’s term.

Acosta blamed Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and the Senate finance committee chairman, Senator Sonny Angara, for the complete defunding.

“This insertion is illegal, an unconstitutional rider, a violation of civil service commission for permanent government employees and contrary to law, the insertion should be vetoed by PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) if it prevails in the bicameral committee,” Acosta said.

Angara told Rappler it was “not my move.”

“Unfortunately there are senators who believe there is a conflict with the mandate of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) that’s why there are those provisions there to avoid duplication of functions,” Angara said in a text message Tuesday evening.


Drilon said he “authored the proposed amendment in the Senate version of the General Appropriation Bill.”

“Instead of duplicating the functions of the NBI and the Philippine National Police, PAO should use the funds to hire more lawyers to assist indigents with legal problems,” Drilon told reporters on Wednesday, December 2.

PAO has filed 150 criminal complaints and 50 civil cases alleging that people, mostly children, died because they were administered with Dengvaxia. To date, there is no established scientific link between the vaccine and these deaths.

To file those cases, the PAO forensic lab conducted 159 examinations. Philippine medical experts questioned their method and begged the Department of Justice (DOJ) “to leave the matter of determining the cause of death to competent forensic pathologists.” PAO is an attached agency to the DOJ.

In the 2020 budget deliberations, the legal basis for the existence of PAO’s forensic lab was questioned. This resulted in a defunding, which President Rodrigo Duterte affirmed.

In his budget message for 2020, Duterte affirmed the special provision that said, “No amount appropriated in this act shall be used for travel allowance, meetings, and other maintenance and operating expenses of the PAO Forensic Laboratory.”

But because of the wording, PAO forensic lab was able to continue conducting autoposies and filing complaints because Acosta said only budget for equipment was slashed.

“Kahit wala po kaming portable X-ray marami kaming mahihiraman pansamantala ng X-ray kaya kahit tinapyas po ‘yun, nakapagtrabaho pa rin ang ating mga doktor,” Acosta said.

(Even though we have no portable X-ray, we were still able to borrow an X-ray [machine] so our doctors were still able to do their jobs.)

In the 2021 proposed budget, the wording was changed to include salary. It now reads, “Nothing in the appropriation provided in this act shall be used for the salaries and compensation of personnel, travel allowance, meetings and maintenance and other operating expenses of the PAO forensic laboratory division.”

That was according to Acosta.

Asked to confirm this, Angara said, “It’s important to stress there was no item for that to begin with in either the 2020 General Appropriations Act or 2021 National Expenditure Program or General Appropriations Bill.”

“Nothing was removed because there was no budget to begin with in the budget,” said Angara.

The DOJ’s role

Acosta said that even though the NBI and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) were mandated to do their forensic work, it was the PAO specifically that was tasked to investigate the Dengvaxia anomaly.

Acosta cited a December 2017 Department Order by then secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II that assigned PAO to assist the families of children administered with the vaccine.

This was during the backlash caused by Sanofi Pasteur’s advisory that vaccinees were at risk of contracting a more severe form of dengue, putting the Aquino government under intense scrutiny.

Medical experts have appealed to the public not to panic as there was no proof that the vaccine kills.

In an earlier exchange with reporters, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he could not interfere with how the PAO conducted its operations because it is an autonomous office.

Guevarra said that prosecutors who would handle the Dengvaxia complaints may look at the defunding and determine if this affected the credibility of evidence.

“That’s for the panel of prosecutors to clarify during the preliminary investigation,” Guevarra said when asked.

Angara said Acosta may “perhaps seek out the senators involved to try and convince them.” – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.